Industrialization of American Society

By Patricia Ryaby Backer

Mechanization, as seen in Western society, is the result of a rationalistic view of the world. After the development of factories during the Industrial Revolution, the nineteenth-century factory remained essentially a job shop, with various machines placed randomly about in corners and on different floors, their individual motions controlled by a large wheel, often placed in the basement. Steam power, available since the invention of the steam engine by James Watt, was "transmitted vertically through the factory building from the basement to the top floor: primary belting transferred motion to secondary shafts, which in turn transmitted power via pulleys to individual machines" (Hirchhorn, 1984, p. 10). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the widening of the railroad network, the accelerated growth of metropolitan areas, and, in America, the mechanizing of many complicated crafts, the influence of mechanization was already reaching deeper into life (Giedion, 1948).

The Industrial Revolution spanned the industrialization of society with its three major aspects: the division of labor, specialization, and mechanization. Each of these three factors helped to create the modern industrial society with the vision of mass production and the assembly line. The Industrial Revolution transplanted from England to the Untied States caused what was, by the 1850s, known as the "American system of manufacturing" (Woodbury, 1972).

In the United States, the first factory system appeared in Waltham and Lowell in the 1810s and 1820s in the textile industry. The factory system then spread to the chemical and metallurgical industries in the 1840s and to all market-oriented industries by the 1860s and 1870s (Nelson, 1980). This American model of manufacturing, which included mass manufacture by power-driven machinery and interchangeable parts, was dominated by machine processes. Machine processes dictated the nature and organization of production, although there was no uniformity in production layout or methods between different industries. For example, in the textile industry, machines almost immediately created a sequential manufacturing process that was characteristic of that industry. In iron manufacturing, however, a standard factory layout, because of the new machines, took a long time to develop and there was little uniformity in factory organization until the end of the 19th century.

The mechanization movement, which began in the Industrial Revolution, had a significant impact on how people worked. The next great change in the organization of work occurred as a result of the development of scientific management and the assembly line.

The development of the Assembly Line and mass production

The assembly line illustrates the fundamental principles of mechanization: standardization, continuity, constraint, and the reduction of work to simple labor. Taken together, these principles form the core of industrial culture in the mid 20th century in the United States. Also, these fundamental principles form the basis of the "American production system," which until recently, was the undisputed leader in global manufacturing.

The concept of assembly line production is so familiar today that we sometimes forget that, until the early 20th century, it was relatively unknown. In an assembly line, workers attach the same parts day after day along a conveyor belt knowing that all of the parts taken together will complete the entire product. There is a disassociation between the worker's job and the final product for the workers no longer make the entire product--instead, they work repeatedly on one tiny portion of the manufacturing process. There were two key developments that led to the possibility of the assembly line: standardized parts and the factory system of work. Both of these developments occurred in Europe but the merging of these two was done to the greatest success in the United States.

Standardization of Parts. According to Giedion (1948), the development of precision machining was critical to mechanization. Precise machining guaranteed that the parts of an assembled product would fit together. Also, the precise standards allowed the production of interchangeable parts--this development is fundamental to the modern industrial system of manufacturing. Mass marketing to the consumer depends on interchangeability. Once parts are standardized, they can be used in the assembly stage of production.

The theory of using interchangeable parts began in France but was not used there because of the disinterest of manufacturers. Honoré le Blanc was a French inventor who proposed replicability of manufacturing gun locks using jigs, dies, and molds. le Blanc had worked out a system for making gun parts to a standardized pattern, so if a part broke, it could be replaced immediately by another part that would fit the gun exactly. French workmen who were primarily craftsmen, however, were unwilling to adopt new manufacturing methods that would reduce their status or employment (Burke, 1978). Thomas Jefferson, who was then the ambassador from the United States to France, knew about le Blanc's work. Jefferson, realizing the possibilities of interachangeability for arms manufacture, quickly forwarded this discovery to the armories in the United States (Hounshell, 1984). In this way, the principles of interchangeable parts began to be used in manufacturing guns in the United States. The national armory at Springfield, Massachusetts played the largest role in the development of interchangeable parts and mass production. At this armory, from 1794 to 1815, weapons making was transformed from a craft-based system into a factory product. The most significant innovations at Springfield were in the use of machinery that could produce duplicate parts which were developed by Thomas Blanchard. Blanchard's lathe could reproduce the irregular shape of a gunstock (or any other irregularly shaped object such as an ax handle) (Hounshell, 1984).

The assembly line. The first use of an assembly line was in the shipbuilding industry in England in 1807. Marc Brunel designed and Henry Maudsley built a series of machines to saw, drill, mortise, recess, turn, and shape wood to make wooden blocks (pulleys) for ships. In all, they used forty-five machines to produce three different ranges of blocks. The Portsmouth block-making operation demonstrated the possibility of using a number of machines to build a product, each designed to carry out a single operation and arranged sequentially to complete all the necessary operations to build a product.

The assembly line was not accepted by the workers in England. England, at that time, was dominated by craftsmen who were very resistant to the prospect of non-craft production. In addition, the worker population was very steady in England and workers tended to stay in the same occupation for life. These factors impeded the spread of this system to other production facilities.

The assembly line next appeared at The Springfield Armory where Blanchard used Brunel's concepts to develop the principles of sequentially arranged, single-purpose machinery. Blanchard rediscovered Brunel's methods and applied them to the manufacture of metal parts. Blanchard developed fourteen machines to build his guns, and, by the end of 1826, he had eliminated the use of skilled labor in making gun stocks (Smith, M.R., 1981). However, this assembly line was not the well-oiled machine that we think of today; yet, it represented a major step in the start of the American dominance of manufacturing methods. By the 1850s, the system of interchangeable parts combined with specialized machines was being referred to as the "American system" of manufacturing.

"The gun-maker's tools were carried to the sewing machine manufactory, but as the demand grew for a better quality of work these tools were improved until we find the sewing machine now in possession of the improved milling machine, the perfected screw machine, the turrent lathe, a complete system of 'jig' working, and a system of measuring by decimals...Gauge work is an outgrowth from a rude system that originated in the armories, but has been perfected and systematized in the sewing machine manufactory" (Spalding, 1890).

The spread of the assembly line. The new manufacturing technology spread first to the production of the sewing machine, then to the bicycle industry, then to the automobile industry. The sewing machine industry at the time was filled by three manufacturers: Wheeler and Wilson, Brown and Sharpe, and Singer. Wheeler and Wilson completely adopted the armory method of manufacturing and Brown and Sharpe focused on designing and constructing special tools and machines for the sewing machine. Although Wheeler and Wilson first outsold Singer and Brown and Sharpe, by 1867, the largest company in the sewing machine industry was Singer. By 1867, Singer dominated the industry and used predominately a European (craft-based) approach to manufacture. However, as Singer continued to grow and demand for its machines outstripped the availability of skilled workers, Singer began to use special-purpose machinery.

The importance of Henry Ford. According to many industrial historians, Henry Ford’s innovation of the Model T, the moving belt assembly line, and the five-dollar, eight hour day have had more important consequences than Lenin’s socialist revolution (Flink, 1981).

The automobile was enthusiastically received by Americans from its introduction into society even before the introduction of the Model T by Ford. The climate in the United States towards the desirability of individual transportation was formed by the widespread popularity of the bicycle that was seen in the 1890s. According to Flink (1981), farmers and city consumers alike began to perceive cheaper highway transportation as an alternative to the monopolistic power of the railroads. Because of the vast size of the United States, large areas remained inaccessible even after railroads were common and most Americans still lived on isolated farms or in poorly connected villages. In the city, the automobile was viewed as a clean alternative to the health and traffic problems caused by horses.

"And, perhaps more important, the motorcar offered our individualistic, migrant population the promise of greatly expanded personal mobility and freedom of choice in residence, business location, and the pursuit of leisure-time activities" (Flink, 1981, p. 166).

Henry Ford was the most successful of the early car manufacturers in the United States. He was born on a Michigan farm in 1863; and, because of this background, he had a life-long aversion to the drudgery of farm labor. Ford was a tinkerer and, while an engineer at Detroit’s’ Edison Illuminating Company in 1896, he built his first automobile. After two unsuccessful attempts to produce an automobile commercially, Ford gained his success with the foundation of the Ford Motor Company, begun in 1903. Ford was committed to producing low cost cars--in this regard, he was different from his competitors who focused on building higher priced cars for the more limited luxury market. The Model T, his most famous car, was introduced in 1908 for under $900. His advertising for the car was correct and showcased its popularity--"No car under $2,000 offers more, and no car over $2,000 offers more except the trimmings." Because of his use of mass production techniques to build the Model T, Ford was able to reduce the price of it to $345 for the runabout and $360 for the touring car in 1916.

Henry Ford produced the first modern car. By this conception, a modern car is one that is produced by mass production methods and is affordable to all middle class people in the society. And, that is what made the Model T so popular. Ford boasted that he made a car that the workers (workers in his assembly line) could afford to buy. Ford is also known for his payment of his workers. In 1914, Ford started the five dollar, eight hour day, which more than doubled wages for a shorter work day. By this move, Ford was paying more money for semi-skilled workers to work for him than were other manufacturers who employed craftsmen.

During the 1920s, Henry Ford as widely admired as the premier among American capitalists. Worldwide, his accomplishments were acclaimed and, during his lifetime, he had more written about him than any figure in American history (Flink, 1981). However, his reputation has been tarnished by his activities that were not as well-published during this time. He was blamed for the deterioration of working conditions in his plant as well as for writing anti-Semitic articles published in the Dearborn Independent. Also, as he became more powerful in the car industry, Ford tended toward autocratic rule and arbitrary management of his company.] end of bio on Henry Ford

Henry Ford and the assembly line. Henry Ford was not the first to use the assembly line--that credit belong to England, Brunel, and its shipbuilding industry--however, Henry Ford took the idea of the assembly line and transformed it so that it became a major component of the American industrial system. Ford's use of the assembly line to produce the Model T was revolutionary because "it brought the principles of conveyance and controlled movement to a metal-based industry where the problems of standardized parts and steady power had first to be solved" (Hirschhorn, 1984, p. 10).

Two developments, electricity and scientific management (the latter became known as industrial management after World War I), established the technical basis for the principle of continuity. The continuity of this assembly line, as we have seen, emerged from the interplay of technical and managerial development in both the Ford Motor Company and in other industries. Giedion (1948) has placed the work of Henry Ford on the assembly line at the end of a long process of technological developments including the production of interchangeable parts, the idea of continuous flow, the efficiency movement, and the disassembly lines of the Chicago slaughterhouses.

Ford, when he started, redesigned the factory layout in order to allow for the volume production of cars. He put a great emphasis on designing machine tools that would increase output. By 1914, about 15,000 new machines had been installed in the Highland Park plant. Ford engineers used time-and-motion studies to install continuous conveyor belts to bring materials to the assembly lines. By the summer of 1913, three subassemblies (magnetos, motors, and transmissions) were assembled on moving lines. Because these moving lines produced subassemblies faster than the main production line could take them, a moving chassis line was added--this reduced the chassis assembly time from 12 1/2 hours in October to 2 hours, 40 minutes in December, 1913 (Flink, 1981).

"Every piece of work in the shop moves. It may move on hooks or overhead chains going to assembly in the exact order in which the parts are required; it may travel on a moving platform; or it may go by gravity, but the point is that there is no lifting or trucking of anything than materials" (Henry Ford, cited in Flink, 1981, p. 170).


The beginning of Flexible Mass Production. The assembly line typifies the move of reductionism in the factory--this is a reduction of work to simple labor, robbed of all inherent interest or value. "The worker, making a few turns of the wrist or sweeps of the arm, becomes a specialized machine, doomed to repeat these simple mechanical movements eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Nothing seems more brutalizing, not because of felt pain or discomfort--for many studies show that workers do adjust to the rhythms of movement imposed by the line and may derive pleasure from the experience of continuity--but rather because experiences and potentials are lost forever as intelligent people are robbed of their ability to think, puzzle out, and discover" (Hirschhorn, 1984, p.13).

According to Nuwer (1988), the introduction of mass production techniques into the workplace was often related to the large amount of machine-tending jobs. Technological changes in manufacturing practices, such as mass production and the assembly line, increased the scale of production of goods by standardizing productive operations. This created a large class of machine operators in American factories who, overall, had lower skills than the craft production workers that were displaced.

The start of mass production, originally called "Fordism" led to the use of mass production in other automobile companies with manufacturers of consumer durable goods soon following. Mass production was viewed by industrialists as industry on a scientific basis while social critics decried its dehumanizing effects on the workforce. Edward Filene argued that mass production represented the "second" Industrial Revolution. Ford’s system of mass production was so successful because his product, the Model T, did not vary. However, variety and options became the hallmark of the new consumer society which developed. So, Ford’s pure assembly line was modified widely to become more of a flexible line which allowed variations in assembly.

The assembly line, and its derivatives, are still a significant force in the manufacturing world of today. Now called traditional manufacturing, the system of melding worker to the machine is used to build almost all durable goods. And, the development of hierarchy and planning, which are maximized by this system, are still common in American production.